December 25, 1996
Now a Christmas Day look at the search for the historical Jesus. Richard Ostling of Time Magazine has our report.
RICHARD OSTLING, Time Magazine: New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz and a lively town night and day. But a few weeks ago there was a different sort of excitement when thousands of religion scholars held their annual meeting.
SPOKESMAN: The crowd loves this stuff and clamors for more. We can do without the low blows. We can learn to be more courteous and collegial, but basically, this is good, clean fun. (laughter among audience)
RICHARD OSTLING: The fight and the fun concern one of the hottest topics among religion experts: What do we know about the Jesus of history? It's no ordinary academic dispute because the words and deeds of Jesus are the basis of the Christian faith. Since the 19th century various scholars have raised questions about the historical accuracy of accounts in the four New Testament gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but the debate has lately become a public spectacle, due mostly to a group called the Jesus Seminar.
SPOKESMAN: I've been looking for kinds of things that seem to me to be characteristic of parables, aphorisms, and dialogues.
RICHARD OSTLING: This group of several dozen scholars is gathered twice a year to vote on the validity of each incident in the gospels, choosing colored beads to represent different levels of authenticity. For example, in the Lord's Prayer they think “Our Father” were the only words Jesus clearly spoke Himself. The rest is judged probable, unlikely, or totally ruled out. The seminar claims that at least 60 percent of the recorded words of Jesus were not His own but were created later on to express the faith of the Christian Church. Next year, the seminar will issue another report, contending that many of the events of Jesus' life were not actual history either. The pronouncements are shocking to many grassroots Christians, and they've provoked a media onslaught. The Jesus Seminar is not just trying to persuade other scholars. Members are also taking their message to the people. Last month, Professor Marcus Borg preached and taught at Grace St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Tucson. Borg, an Episcopalian, married to a member of the clergy, is deluged with such invitations.
MARCUS BORG, Oregon State University: How we think of Jesus very much affects what we think the Christian life is most centrally about.
RICHARD OSTLING: Borg says his childhood image of Jesus as what he calls a divine super hero has been replaced by a different Jesus and the new image of Christianity.
MARCUS BORG: I have learned that the message of Jesus was not about requirements, not about here's what you must do or believe in order to go to heaven, but it was about entering into a relationship with God now in the present.
MARCUS BORG: I see him as a Jewish mystic, a wisdom teacher, and a social prophet. And for me as a Christian what Jesus was like as a figure of history is a powerful testimony to the reality of the sacred, or the reality of God.
RICHARD OSTLING: He insists the stories and the gospels can be profoundly true as symbols or metaphors, even though they're not historical.
MARCUS BORG: Being a Christian doesn't mean that one has to believe that Jesus really walked on the water, or really multiplied loaves and so forth. And I think that a literalistic approach to Scripture has in the minds of many Christians become a major obstacle. I think I would be willing to say that the teaching of Jesus makes profound religious sense to me whether Jesus said it or not.
RICHARD OSTLING: John Bret-Harte, a newspaper man and member of Grace St. Paul's, says he was once troubled by historical contradictions in the gospels. He no longer lies on the literal truth of the accounts but his spiritual experience.
JOHN BRET-HARTE: Faith doesn't need documents because you don't know your faith in your head. You know your faith in your heart. And my heart is simply dissatisfied. It's difficult to explain because we always think of real things, “real things,” as being things you can get hit against, things you can walk on, a floor or a window you can look out of. I don't that's quantifiable. And this is not a quantifiable experience. But it's nonetheless real.
RICHARD OSTLING: But the new thinking is troubling to some parishioners Borg meets.
SPOKESPERSON: It remains important to me, again, and I believe that Jesus was the Son of God. I believe in the corporal resurrection. What does your work have to say to someone like me, and furthermore, when I come away from talking to someone who finds her work helpful and interesting, and more important, I find it helpful and interesting, but perhaps not important as they do, I come away feeling small.
MARCUS BORG: I'll simply say that I think, give my understanding of Christianity, there's all the room in the world for disagreement about whether or not the resurrection of Jesus involved something happening to his corpse and things like that. I grew up in a tradition which stressed correct belief, and I now see it's not about correct belief at all. It's about, you know, being in relationship to that which all this stuff points.
N.T. WRIGHT, Dean, Lichfield Cathedral: When God became human, He really became human, and if He became human, that means he belongs in history.
RICHARD OSTLING: N.T. Wright, like Borg, belongs to the Anglican branch of Christian. A cathedral dean in England, he comes to the U.S. to defend the traditional view, running all-day seminars across the country.
SPOKESPERSON: If they don't believe in a Christ who really did come in, you know, human form and die for their sins and rise for their dead and offer salvation, what are they basing as their hope?
N.T. WRIGHT: That would be very difficult to say because a lot of those scholars keep their own personal cards quite close to their chest.
RICHARD OSTLING: Unlike Borg, Wright believes the Jesus of history was, indeed, the Messiah.
N.T. WRIGHT: When I look at Jesus, I'm looking at the living God, the Creator of the universe. That is, of course, a huge idea. But in the New Testament, what we see is not a high and mighty God striding through the world this way and that but a young Jewish prophet riding into Jerusalem on a donkey in tears, announcing God's judgment on the city, having a last meal with His friends, going off to give His life for the life of the world, and believing that in so doing He is embodying the living and loving God. And it's as I look at that face that I believe that I am looking at the human face of God.
RICHARD OSTLING: Wright contends that the Jesus Seminar artificially strips Jesus's sayings away from the context of His life, thus, distorting both what He said and who He was.
N.T. WRIGHT: It is an anti-apocalyptic Jew, a character who sits in the marketplace, swapping aphorisms, teasing people into thinking differently about their lives, a Jesus who doesn't think anything dramatic is going to happen or is going to occur.
RICHARD OSTLING: One Episcopalian at Wright's class, retired Wyoming high schoolteacher Norma Christiansen, worries that the Jesus Seminar waters down the Bible and has a negative impact.
NORMA CHRISTIANSEN: The Bible is real. The things did happen. And I think that you're--you're removing the lynchpin, if you will, if you take that away. And it's going to destroy people's faith. They're going to say, well, why am I believing this, there is nothing, you know, and then they'll just leave altogether.
RICHARD OSTLING: Wright and Borg are friends but disagree even on something as basic as the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Borg sees it as symbolic of a spiritual experience of the early Church. Wright thinks it literally occurred. They also differ on the Christmas story.
MARCUS BORG: I don't think it happened in Bethlehem. I think it happened in Nazareth. I don't think there were wise men. I don't think there was a star. I don't think there were shepherds, but that immediately I want to add the positive affirmation that I think the stories as symbolic narratives are profoundly true, and they make use of some of the most ancient and powerful religious symbolism. The birth of Jesus is the story of light coming into the darkness. It's the story of the beginning of the return from exile.
N.T. WRIGHT: The Nativity stories, themselves, are such strange stories in Matthew, the end of Matthew I, and the beginning of Luke II, that I ask myself as a historian why would somebody like Matthew, whoever he was, and somebody like Luke, whoever he was, want to tell stories like that which were open to such potentially damaging pagan interpretation, for instance, unless they had a sort of sense of obligation that something had to be said about this, and this was the story they'd received, so, though, again, I can't as a historian put it into the test tube and say QED, I find myself saying, well, something like this may well have happened. I don't think this is just a pious fiction later on.
(PEOPLE SINGING HYMN)
RICHARD OSTLING: Despite their profound disagreements, Borg and Wright both believe Jesus is a living presence in history and today, and that it's remarkable any person is being talked about with such urgency 2,000 years after He lived.